I so love to hear other writer’s stories about how they came to writing, how they came to find the stories they were meant to write. So I was pleased that Barbara Herkert was willing to share a bit of her journey with us today!
In October of 2015, I had two picture book biographies released within two weeks of each other, Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist, (Henry Holt) illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton and Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter, (Knopf) illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska.
My road to writing picture book biographies came as a complete surprise to me. While still a student in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, I had the good fortune of having Jacqueline Briggs Martin as a mentor. I thought that I’d best take advantage of her expertise in writing beautiful narrative nonfiction and try writing a picture book biography for myself. I’d become intrigued with Harriet Powers while I was researching anonymous women artists for a novel I was working on. I was deeply moved by Harriet Powers’ story quilts. Her photo mesmerized me. I had to find out more. I read everything I could about Harriet and quilt making. I visited the Smithsonian to see Harriet’s story quilt. It was even more wonderful than I had dreamed of—the figures and shapes danced across the surface of the fabric as if to music. The words for Harriet’s story came to me in free verse, with a rhythm of their own.
So began my love of writing picture book biographies. I found that I reveled in every aspect of a new project—from finding a hook that would appeal to young readers, to seeking out experts on the subject, to revising and revising so that every word sang. Researching an amazing life completely draws me in.
This was the case with Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionst. I’ve held a life-long fascination with Mary’s art. She was strong and independent and broke down barriers—my kind of girl! I was intrigued by her long friendship with Edgar Degas. Again, this story came to me in free verse. It seems a natural fit to me: art and poetry.
My next book will be released in 2017, A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White. Do you know what the best thing is about writing picture book biographies? I get to fall in love again and again.
Barbara Herkert received a biology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a masters degree in writing for children from Hamline University. She studied art and art history at Oregon State University, and wrote and illustrated her first book, Birds in Your Backyard, in 2001. She lives on the wet and windy Oregon coast with her husband and daughter. She also spends creative time in a log house in Central Oregon. She is Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Oregon. You can find her online at www.barbaraherkert.com